Building Strong Cohorts in a Virtual World: Lessons Learned for Fellowships, Grantees, Cohorts, Working Groups and Project Teams

For our Conveners Member call this month, we were thrilled to have Trailblazer member Dominic Register, Program Director at Salzburg Global Seminar, spark an interactive discussion focused on Building Strong Cohorts in a Virtual World: Lessons Learned for Fellowships, Grantees, Cohorts, Working Groups and Project Teams. 

Lessons Learned

At the opening of our call, Dominic shared strategies that have worked well to strengthen cohort trust and connections when their programs had to shift quickly to a virtual setting, including: 

  • Overlapping cohort schedules so participants from one group ending their cohort experience can meet those just starting their program to foster program affinity and meaningful engagement. 
  • Creating themed learning days during the week to elevate interest and spark intersecting conversations.
  • Designing more levity and light-hearted moments into the cohort experience to ease the seriousness that can build up over time. 

Dominic was joined by colleague Jennifer Dunn, who candidly noted that program design and cohort engagement took more work to prepare and more time to manage than would normally be expended for their in-person cohort meetings. This extra effort gave their team the opportunity to embrace more flexibility, experiment with different approaches and try new learning experiences with cohorts rather than merely translate their traditional in-person experiences to an online setting. 

Conveners.org member Tarlin Saye, Program & Experiences Lead for Synergos’ Global Philanthropists Circle, reinforced the need to be agile in adapting cohort programming online.  Being willing to listen and learn alongside their diverse membership of over 400 philanthropists and social investors in more than 30 countries has become central to their organization’s ability to continue to create trust and meaningful conversations in a virtual setting. 

Hive-Mind Challenges

During this call, we also experimented with a new approach to shared learning and collective thinking we called Hive-Mind Challenges using a shared document accessible to everyone on the call. We tasked small groups randomly assigned in the first breakout session to discuss (and document) issues and obstacles they are wrestling with to adapt engagement and experiences when their cohorts can’t meet face-to-face.  

Then, small groups randomly assigned in the second breakout session selected one of the lists created by a group in the first session, working together to provide recommendations and potential solutions. Eli Malinsky, Associate Director at The Aspen Institute and lead for their First Movers Fellowship Program, enjoyed the problem-solving exercise, noting that collectively considering ways to solve someone else’s problem sparked new thinking for his own challenges. 

Most Notable

Among the cohort-building challenges in a virtual world most frequently mentioned in our small group discussions include: 

  • Keeping attention and focused interaction high as a whole group against errant, disconnected conversations
  • How to break ZOOM fatigue and minimize repetitive, overly structured screen-time formats 
  • Supporting a global cohort aimed at address systemic, worldwide issues while encouraging and enabling grassroots-level change
  • Relying exclusively on online tools to address, and celebrate, the range of social, emotional, cultural and psychological perspectives and needs of individuals that make up a diverse cohort 

Know Your Audience

Conveners.org Member, Christina Gilyutin, Director of Leadership Programs at REDF, concluded our call with sage advice to ‘know your audience’ before adapting cohort programming to a virtual space. She learned through experimentation that strategies to build connection and community for the MBA students in the Farber Program are much different than those needed for social entrepreneurs in their REDF Accelerator.

If you would like more information about this call, our Hive-Mind Challenges approach, or Conveners.org membership, we invite you to contact our Program Catalyst, Sarah Sterling, to schedule a time to speak – sarah@conveners.org.